For beginners & career-pivoters, my journey, and advice
As I started getting questions from people trying to break into design, I thought it’d be helpful to write down the advice I’d give. These are things that worked for me, so take them with a grain of salt and apply them to your own unique circumstances!
Context: My undergrad program is a combination of design, business, and tech. We only learned the fundamentals of graphic design in class, and I learned UI UX on my own through clubs, internships, and Internet resources. My journey so far: visual design → PM & consulting → product design
If you are a completely new beginner to the world of UI UX design but are interested
Start by taking classes either at your school or online (Google has a famous UX design Coursera course). Learn about:
- designing thinking process: the frameworks, problem-solving methodologies, and mindset
- design fundamentals: color, typography, composition, grids…etc
- tools: Figma, maybe Illustrator if you are into graphic design
- career paths: product / UI UX designer, graphic designer, user researcher, design engineer, motion designer, design system designer…etc
- companies you’d potentially want to work for: industry, product type, culture, size
Read Medium articles, blog posts, and designers’ case studies. The articles give you the knowledge and vocabulary to think like a designer. People’s portfolio case studies give you a glimpse of how they solve design problems (even though a lot of student portfolios are super process-driven, which isn’t the case in the real world).
Join designer and builder communities at your school or online. You can find learning buddies at a similar stage of the journey, experienced mentors that are a few rungs ahead of you, and opportunities to work on projects.
The fastest way to learn is through doing. Work on a side project so you can apply the things you learn. Redesign a poorly designed app, improve the app you use the most, or solve a pain point your friend complains about. Get feedback from actual people, and iterate on your design. Make sure to keep track of all progress so you can put them in your portfolio.
Start making a portfolio! Putting together your portfolio for the first time is a big effort (and another topic itself)! The best way to approach this is to start early and collect your work.
I started getting projects/things to show in my portfolio by:
- designing graphics and visuals for on-campus clubs
- redesigning the app for buying high-speed rail tickets in Taiwan
- designing a USC dining hall menu mobile app
- joining a student-startup incubator club and working with a team on an app (this was pivotal because it got me my first “real” internship)
If you’ve had non-design internships that are pivoting into design
Besides the above points, do leverage your previous experiences, no matter how tangentially related they are to design. If you are already working in a company, seize opportunities to talk to designers and try switching (by proactively helping out with design stuff). If not, leverage your expertise in a field (e.g. if you are an accountant, you could focus on finance tech products).
Some might consider going to grad school or a design boot camp to break in. While it’s not absolutely necessary, having some structure might be good for people (there’s also the community component).
Personally, I switched from PM to product design when I realized I enjoy hands-on building stuff more. I expressed my desire to focus on design more during my second PM internship, and I was able to do both PM and design work, which helped me grow immensely.
If you know the basics of design, have done a few side projects, and are looking to gain real-world experience
Early-stage startups often need designers. They might not even have a landing page or a product out yet, but that’s when you can bring in a lot of value. Make the most out of the college environment and volunteer (when you don’t have the skill level yet) to help out startups! There’d usually be some student founder (or business student) looking to build an app.
The best case scenario is working for a more mature company, but those usually require having a polished portfolio. Startups usually are willing to take a bet on ambitious students who show a strong willingness to learn. Plus, startups move fast and you’d be able to get exposed to a wide range of projects as well as have shorter feedback loops. The only thing to watch out for is making sure the company values design and you could be working with a designer. While it’s not always possible, having someone to mentor and provide feedback accelerates your career growth. Optimize for designing in the real world, which means solving real business problems and shipping designs people use.
I got my first “real” internship serendipitously from my LinkedIn connection. I wasn’t explicitly looking for a job but they happened to need some design help. To this date, they still use the logo I designed (another lesson here: don’t underestimate the power of LinkedIn)!
If you are trying to get a big company internship
At this point, you probably have quite some experience dabbling in the world of design. To get a big company job, having some level of expertise is needed. Now might be the right time to think whether you’d want to focus on design more or explore another career path.
After my first design internship (it was mostly graphic design), I became interested in product management, so I did 2 PM internships afterward, eventually realizing I like product design more. That’s when I decided to commit to product design more for my early career.
To prepare for a big company internship, make sure you have a polished portfolio with 2+ quality case studies. Come up with a list of companies you’d want to work at and reach out to chat with designers working there (chat about their journey there, the design culture, and feedback on your portfolio). Start practicing your interviewing skills — both behavior and technical (presentation, whiteboarding, or app critique). Most internship postings appear around Oct and Jan, so make sure to get your portfolio and outreach done by then.
There are already quite a lot of articles on this, so I’m not getting into too much detail. Just search on Medium!
This is just me reflecting on how I broke into design, and you can probably find different stories from others. But the TL;DR is: learn the skills → get real-world experience → have a positive attitude and connect with & learn from others → repeat
We are fortunate that design is a pretty open industry. Most of the time people are friendly and willing to share and help. A lot of people have previously been helped by others and are just paying it forward (hence why resources like ADPList are available). Keep in mind things take time and don’t put too much pressure on yourself! It’s about the journey and you should enjoy the ride!
Hope this is helpful! Let me know if you have any questions, feel free to reach out on Twitter!